Operations

Getting to Know the Michaels of MFW

Michael Foulk and Michael Wheeler on running a million-dollar, bicoastal business with a terroir-driven portfolio

Michael Foulk and Michael Wheeler
Michael Foulk and Michael Wheeler. Photo courtesy of Michael Foulk.

The Michaels of MFW have been in a bicoastal working relationship since 2012. Michael Foulk (the “F”) and Michael Wheeler (the “W”) run their New York–based boutique wine importing and distribution company from opposite sides of the country—Foulk in New York City, and Wheeler in Portland, Oregon.

The two met 10 years ago while working at the importer Polaner Selections in New York; Wheeler was a partner in the company, and Foulk had changed careers—he’d begun selling wine wholesale after years in retail. After eight years at Polaner, Wheeler saw a business opportunity elsewhere: Louis/Dressner Selections, based in New York, needed a new local distributor in Portland, Oregon, and because he’d worked with the wines in the past, Wheeler decided he ought to be that person. He moved west and helped set up a partnership known as PDX Wine.

Meanwhile, Foulk took a revelatory trip to France, where he met and tasted with numerous producers who weren’t yet imported into the U.S. Armed with the skill set he’d developed as a sales rep and his newfound familiarity with French winemakers, he was ready to step out on his own. He admits that he would never have taken the leap without a partner he trusts and admires as much as Wheeler. After a little effort, Foulk persuaded him to team up, and they launched MFW, a separate company, on the East Coast.

Both MFW and PDX have carved out niches in their respective markets by emphasizing organic and biodynamic producers who place farming and authenticity above all else. The MFW and PDX Wine distribution portfolios both represent estates from importers Jose Pastor, Portovino, and Carlo Huber. But while PDX is primarily a distributor (it also works with the wines of Louis/Dressner, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, and De Maison Selections, among others), MFW has its own direct-import collection of small growers from France.

SevenFifty Daily caught up with the Michaels to discuss the differences between the New York and Portland markets, and to get some perspective on the logistical challenges of selling wine cross-country.

SFD: What makes these two cities ideal for the type of wines you import and distribute?

MW: Well, New York is New York, right? It’s a bounty of commerce. Nonstop, people are opening new restaurants and bars, and they want to try different things. In Brooklyn, we sell so much Gamay Noir from Oregon that if you ask a Brooklyn dude what Oregon is all about, he might say, “Gamay.”

And then as far as Oregon, you can trace it back to the big ’60s Earth First movement out here. When we were kids, people would jokingly refer to Oregon as the granola-crunching state. Now some people are calling it Williamsburg in the woods. Whatever you call it, with that mind-set and our organic wines, we were an instant success.

We came in with a splash here. Since then, six or seven other companies have opened up with cool wine, too, so we helped move [Portland’s wine] culture forward, but it’s going to continue to grow, just like it always does.

MF: I hesitate to use the term natural wine to describe the producers in our portfolio, but there’s a big difference between what we do and what the giant companies do. What we do correlates with the kinds of food people want to eat and how they want to, quote unquote, vote with their dollars. People who buy their produce at Whole Foods or at the greenmarket are really thinking about the types of food they want to put in their bodies. Now they’re seeing the correlation between that and what’s on the back label of the wine they’re drinking. It happened fairly recently, but New York and Portland have both reached that point. Consumers are asking questions. And I think there’s only going to be more interest in the kind of wines we sell—or better yet, the kind of people we represent.

SFD: What makes Michael a great business partner?

MF: What Michael brings to the table is experience. He’s been doing this a lot longer than I have. When I was a buyer, I knew him by reputation. Then, when I worked with him at Polaner, I was lucky enough to take on a lot of his key accounts, like Chambers Street Wines and Astor Wines. He was a big inspiration for me in how I approach selling. He’s still very passionate about wine and has never gotten jaded about the business. He always manages to keep himself excited and stay fresh. The reps know they can always go to him with questions.

MW: The number one important thing is, I trust [Michael] and I know he’s going to work hard—things that make you gravitate toward someone as a person. Then there’s his level of passion and commitment and expertise. He approached me after I left New York with the idea that we could do something together. I was at first reluctant because I had this whole company here. Then, you know, he really sold it to me.

SFD: How do you divide responsibilities for MFW, being cross-country from one another?

MW: Mike Foulk is kind of the chief. We also have another partner involved, Jason Malumed, and I guess you could say I’m the Northwest brand manager. It’s a very happy partnership. We do everything by committee. We have meetings twice a month over the phone, and I come out to New York about four times a year.

MF: Mike Wheeler is pretty hands-off with the day-to-day. Jason [Malumed] and I are the ones here in the market managing the reps and the supplier relationships. I think Mike likes being the leadership from afar, because he’s never one to micromanage a rep or ask why we’re not doing more business with a certain account, but he’s always the first to applaud the victories. That’s not to say it’s a “good cop, bad cop” thing … But there’s the understanding that I’m on the ground here. Mike’s also been instrumental in building our Pacific Northwest portfolio, which is one of the strongest parts of our book.

SFD: What has your growth been like since year one?

MF: In year one, it was literally me and one other salesperson calling on about 100 accounts in New York City. Now we have six dedicated New York salespeople, and we just hired our first admin person. I mean, we started the company with no outside money, and we still don’t have an office. My office is my home in Queens. That admin person is going to be telecommuting for at least the first few months.

In cases, I’d be surprised if we sold more than 500 cases a month when we started, with 30 producers in the portfolio. We’re now selling around 3,000 cases a month, and selling more expensive wine too. When we brought on our first Champagne producer, Piollot, that was a big deal. When we added Boasso, our first Barolo, that was, too.

MW: The team [at PDX Wines] is bigger, but we also started with more people. In Oregon [unlike New York], you have to own your own warehouse. So we have three drivers, one office manager, plus six people in sales and two partners. That comes to twelve.

In terms of sales, we were under a million dollars the first year and have been growing steadily every year. We’re almost at three million now. That’s from 8,217 cases to 16,287—almost double—six years later.

SFD: So, on a case basis, it sounds like New York does more volume?

MW: Oregon is a C.O.D. bottle state by law. That’s the big difference. In New York, there are terms, so there are price discounts at case breaks. In Oregon, it’s cash on the barrel: We deliver, we get the check. It changes the dynamic between the buyer and the seller because the buyer is only going to order what they can afford right now. They’re not going to hedge their bet on the five-case deal. New York has unlimited potential. MFW grew 35 percent last month. There are just more accounts; I’m sure every distributor in the city sees that. Portland has a trickle.

SFD: What’s the toughest sell in NYC?

MF: Champagne is becoming a difficult category because it’s so saturated now. The genre has changed a lot. It’s not just about the growers anymore; it’s about the renegade Champagnes—the single vineyard, single variety wines. Now every portfolio has a renegade Champagne producer. For us, that’s Ruppert-Leroy.

Beaujolais, also, is a pet peeve of mine. It’s still tough to sell to the old-school buyers. And then the buyers who are into it are like, “I have my Foillard allocation … maybe I’ll make room for another one, maybe not.” There are so many great Beaujolais producers out there now, and there’s just not enough room for them.

SFD: And in Oregon?

MW: Well, one thing we do at PDX Wines is sell California wine. Wind Gap, Dirty & Rowdy, Forlorn Hope—all these very cool, great wines that do well in New York with Skurnik and Bowler—here we struggle with them. There’s just something about the southern territory wines that Oregon buyers won’t embrace. It’s a culture of patriotism and rivalry here with California—always has been. When I first came to the border of Oregon in 1981, there was a sign that said, “Welcome! Love it then leave it!” But we won’t give up.

SFD: Both companies certainly have great Oregon representation. Is that a focus?

MW: Yes, both MFW and PDX Wines have amazing Oregon books because I’m here. There are a lot of new kids doing non-Pinot-Noir-based fun things that we work with. I’d have to sit down and count the producers, but it’s at least 30. Oregon was a Pinotstocracy forever—and still is to a certain extent—but now these kids doing Gamay and Aligoté are biting at their ankles. It’s a little like when Terry Thiese launched the grower Champagne movement. When it started, like 2 percent of all Champagne production was grower Champagne, and it’s grown 10-fold. It just exploded. So Oregon will always stay 80-plus percent Pinot Noir, but that’s getting slowly chipped away at by cool stuff.

SFD: Which wines can’t you keep in stock?

MF: Our Italian supplier, Portovino, has this producer of fun, bubbly wines from Emilia-Romagna called Mirco Mariotti, and we’re now reserving them a year out, which is totally crazy. We’ve oddly always done well with Lambrusco, and this is even more of a surprise. I think it’s because it’s rosato. It’s farmed organically. It’s well priced. The package looks cool—it has a crown cap—and it sells for $15 to $16 retail. Oh, and it’s clean as a whistle.

MW: Well, at PDX we get the allocated Muscadets and Beaujolais from Kermit and Dressner, like Pépière, Lapierre, and Clos de la Roilette—and these limited items come in and go right back out. But that’s simply because there aren’t many bottles. If we really wanted to move a ton of something, we’d have to go after grocery, more commercial wine, and that’s not what we’re about. [No one would] buy it from us anyway; we’re known as the home of goofy wine. We had one cheap wine in a liter bottle once that we thought would do great—this super juicy Argentine Malbec—and it flopped.

SFD: What moves more wine in NYC—trade tastings or visiting individual accounts?

MF: We actually don’t even do our portfolio tasting anymore. We held our last one two years ago and called it Death of a Portfolio Tasting. It was an outdated method of doing things. Plus, going from 30 SKUs to 300, [we had to] book a larger space, take out more samples, and the cost got out of control, without us being able to quantify the results. If anything, we’ll do more focused tastings, like an Alto Piemonte tasting where customers can make their reservations for the back-vintage stuff. Otherwise, it’s just about getting the wines out there in front of people. Or even better, having the grower there with you, telling the customer exactly what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

SFD: Do you have more success with trade tastings in Oregon?

MW: We like to do focused tastings or producer spotlights, where the salesperson runs around with bottles from a single producer—say, five or six wines from Foradori. It’s so much better to do one-on-one—get in front of [buyers] and share all this knowledge. We only ever did one trade tasting [in Portland], one giant one in the beginning, and we’ll never do it again … Okay, we might do one when we’re 10 years old, just to waste a bunch of money.

Since parting ways with the full-time sommelier game in 2010, Carson Demmond has directed Wine & Spirits Magazine’s tastings department, worked for a forward-thinking Bordelais négoce, picked grapes in Arbois, and written for PUNCH, Food & Wine, Decanter and Vogue.com. She currently lives in Atlanta, GA and looks forward to wine pilgrimages with her forthcoming infant in tow.

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